GAY OF THE DEAD – Michael Varrati, Part Three
You can read Part One and Part Two of my interview with screenwriter, blogger and actor Michael Varrati to catch up on our convo. In this last of three parts, we talk Troma, CHASTITY BITES and gay marriage.
FANGORIA: You’ve worked with Lloyd Kaufman on RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 2. I heard a rumor that although the aesthetic of the Troma films is sub-basement budget cheap, in reality he spends quite a bit of money on his films. What insider dirt can you give me about the Troma experience?
MICHAEL VARRATI: I think the somewhat misguided notion of Troma and Lloyd being “cheap” is rooted in the fact that he just doesn’t believe in the superfluous spending that happens on most motion pictures. Lloyd makes movies on a budget, and he believes what money is available ought to go into the movie. A lot of studio pictures and other filmmakers don’t particularly prescribe to this, as they will spend thousands, sometimes millions, on minutia that doesn’t always make the final cut or effect what the audience sees. Lloyd just skips that process. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s the Troma model. If you read Lloyd’s books or listen to him give talks on the subject, he’s very honest about the financial breakdown and distribution of how his movies get made. He makes this information very well known, so if you—as crew, cast, or what have you—have other needs in your filmmaking experience, you can either choose to stay or go elsewhere. Lloyd has found a way to make his movies work for him, as everyone must, and I respect that. It’s one of the reasons Troma has endured for over 40 years.
Furthermore, I’ve said this before (and even wrote about it in the Huffington Post a few years ago); I think Lloyd really is the living extension of the Warholian legacy of DIY punk art. Troma has always defied the mainstream, but now, in an internet-era where everything is available always, their movies seem like one of the last great bastions of counter-culture. I think 80 years from now, pop art historians are going to be talking about what Lloyd and Troma achieved in the same way we discuss DuChamp or Dadaism, or even Warhol, now.
As for my own personal experience, I love Lloyd. He’s been nothing but gracious and encouraging to me and my work. When he asked me to play a small part in the second volume of RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, how could I say no? I loved the original films, and it’s a chance to be part of a franchise that has considerable clout in the cult community. Being on-set is pretty much what you’d imagine, based on what most people know about Troma movies; it’s very bare-bones, and occasionally wacky, but there’s also a great enthusiasm in the air. The day I shot my scene for NUKE ‘EM, I was wrapped in these bandages and it was crazy hot outside, and I probably drank a gallon of water, but I was so excited to be there. I didn’t even realize I was tired until two days later. There was just so much energy. I loved every second.
I still do stuff occasionally with Troma, and I’m happy to even be a footnote in their long history. Furthermore, I just love catching up with Lloyd and his wonderful wife, Pat, whenever I get the chance. In addition to being a visionary filmmaker, he’s just such a nice guy. He’s extremely well-rounded and very informed. I could talk movies, art, and politics with him for hours. What a sweetheart. I just hope he calls me when they start shooting TOXIE 5! Ha!
FANG: Pick a horror movie for me to watch, then write something about that film, and I’ll agree or disagree; maybe we’ll fight!
VARRATI: A movie I really think everyone needs to check out is a 2013 release titled CHASTITY BITES, which was written by the amazing Lotti Pharris Knowles, and directed by the equally amazing John Knowles. Admittedly, I know John and Lotti, and adore them, but my recommendation goes beyond just giving a shout out to a friend’s flick. I saw very few genre releases in the past year that really came close to matching the wit of CHASTITY BITES. It’s the kind of horror movie we’ve been severely lacking recently, as it crackles with surface humor, but has a razor sharp social commentary running throughout. CHASTITY BITES is about an abstinence education teacher who attempts to keep high school students virgins for her own vampiric gain, and it’s brilliant. The movie takes on the tropes of sexuality in horror movies, and posits the question, “What if the only people who get to live are the ones who have sex?” I really liked the fact that they turned the conventions of the genre on the head, and at the same time got a chance to take a stab at our country’s very archaic approach to sex education. It’s a stellar watch, and really a lot of fun. I can’t recommend it enough.
FANG: I thought the script was much better than most low budget horror flicks (and I see a lot of low budget horror flicks), with an interesting new angle on quasi-vampirism. (Liz Batho isn’t exactly a vampire in the film, but she does drink blood for nefarious purposes.) The anti-abstinence position of the film is a great choice, especially considering what’s going on in the country today. The cast was also really good, as were the production values. Good choice! [Full disclosure – Lotti Pharriss Knowles, CHASTITY BITES screenwriter and producer, and I have a tangential past in Chicago theater and indie filmmaker. –Ed.]
In non-horror news, you’re also a Huffington Post blogger. What non-horror stuff catches your blogging eye these days?
VARRATI: My writing tends to run the gamut. I’ve done politically-slanted pieces. I’ve written frequently on LGBT rights, as well. Most people who know my HuffPost work usually cite those articles the most frequently. I called Billy Graham out during the North Carolina marriage vote, I took Bill O’Reilly to task for purporting the “War on Christmas,” and most recently, I responded to the whole Kinky Boots/parade controversy. I’m proud of those pieces, but I couldn’t do them all the time, like some of these politicos do. It takes an emotional toll on me to write those kind of articles.
By and large, I just do pop culture pieces. The horror genre is my base camp, but I love art, movies, and music in general. The only thing I’m not particularly interested in, with regard to that field, is celebrity gossip. I want to write about what’s exciting and new, and not particularly invest time in writing an expose on someone’s dirty laundry. Not only is it just not for me, I also usually just don’t care enough about that aspect to invest my time.
As of late, I’ve sort of gathered a whole separate identity and audience with the YouTube community, due mostly to my writing in HuffPost and other outlets, such as VideoInk News. I’m a firm believer in the YouTube model, and I love the concept of content creation without the bureaucracy of the middle man. You can make something remarkable, and it’s instantly available for the community at large. Sure, it also means that the net is rife with a lot of nonsense, but like all mediums, if you’re looking for it, you’ll eventually see the cream that has risen to the top. There are some brilliantly talented content creators and artists out there, and I’ve been spending a lot of time meeting some of the various “YouTubers,” profiling and working with them, and generally joining the community. It’s been wild. I started simply by writing about a few talented individuals I liked, and from there, I ended up doing events at YouTube Space LA, I’ve appeared in people’s videos, and generally been exposed to a whole remarkable community. Not only is there so much exciting creation going on, but they all really love and take care of each other. I’m happy to be part of that scene.
FANGO: Just to add some gay to “Gay of the Dead,” predictions on gay marriage in all 50 states? A year? Five? Ever?
VARRATI: I remain ever hopeful. We’ve already seen so much progress in the last few years, I’d like to believe that in five, that positivity and change will have spread even farther. When I was in high school, even college, the idea of even one state allowing gay marriage seemed impossible. So, being in California when Prop 8 and DOMA were overturned and seeing the jubilation in the street that night was everything. People were cheering and crying, and it was such a powerful moment. Those are the things the individuals on the fence need to see. The fact that hundreds of people flooded the streets to celebrate simply because they government finally said, “Yes, you’re people, too”…it’s unspeakably overwhelming.
That said, Mississippi only recently struck an antiquated slavery law from its books. Though, of course, the law wasn’t enforced in ages, the fact that they never bothered to remove it from public record until last year or so speaks to the fact that some regions of the country are resistant to change, and will be for a very long time. I think in five years, we’ll see a huge difference to now, there’s no other option, but I don’t know if everyone will have gotten there quite yet. However, we all need to continue to dream and fight for that day, and I think it will happen.
FANG: What’s on deck for Michael Varrati?
VARRATI: TALES OF POE is coming out in the middle of this year, and that includes a number of theatrical dates. Bart, Alan, and myself will be gearing up for that roll-out, and there will be plenty to do, with regard to publicity and travel. Which, I’m very excited for people to finally see this beast, so I can’t wait.
Beyond POE, a feature film that I wrote, THE SINS OF DRACULA, will complete shooting and be released at some point this year. SINS is directed by the amazing Richard Griffin, who I’ve been collaborating with a lot recently, and whose work I simply adore. Richard first announced SINS last year, but thanks to Hurricane Sandy, production had a bit of a hiatus…and it’s finally going to rise from the grave in 2014. I adore the cast, which includes Carmine Capobianco (PSYCHOS IN LOVE) and Michael Thurber, and I think people are going to be surprised by the end result. Whereas TALES OF POE is very much a serious film, SINS is a wacky, albeit bloody, romp of a story. It’s basically my take on the “Christian scare films” of the 80s, as if they were produced by Hammer. It certainly is very outrageous, and with Richard at the helm, I’m all the more excited. He just gets my sensibilities.
Furthermore, as a bit of a teaser exclusive, I completed writing a brand new feature script back in October, which Richard is also set to direct, and it’s fucking insane. Think Fulci by way of Amicus, in terms of atmosphere. He hasn’t announced the project yet, so I won’t step on his toes and give anything away, but I will say this…when I delivered him the final copy of the script, his immediate response was, “You’re very disturbed.” What better compliment can a writer get from his director on a horror project?
As for other stuff, a film I was in with Michael Berryman and some other amazing people, EREBUS, is coming out this year. That one was directed by Ricky Laprade, and it’s a really solid paranormal story. I had a blast on the set of that movie. I play a photographer with a nose for ghosts. I think MODEL HUNGER also officially comes out this year. So, there’s that.
…and of course, I’ll continue writing. I’ve still got regular columns to maintain on HuffPost, peacheschrist.com, and VideoInk. Furthermore, I’m writing two feature scripts simultaneously right now, and both of them have committed investors, which means pre-production is going to start relatively soon.
So, basically, I could be doing more with my time.
[At press time, filmmaker Richard Marr-Griffin announced that Michael’s script, The Sisters of Perdition, would go into production Spring 2014. Additionally, Michael will be writing a romantic comedy with CHILLERAMA star Sean Lockhart. –Ed.]
FANG: And finally, this incarnation of “Gay of the Dead” will have a pay-it-forward twist – who should I interview next?
VARRATI: I’m going to go with Babette Bombshell, 100%. Not only do I think it would be great for the “Gay of the Dead” section to highlight another drag queen of horror, I think that she’s just a total force of nature in the indie horror community right now. I’ve been in two movies with Babette, MODEL HUNGER and RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, and, surprisingly, we’ve never met. I consider that to be a real shame, because I just really, really dig what she’s putting down. Babette gets the whole aesthetic of the low-budget world, and knows how to take an on the nose performance and turn it into cult film gold.
She proves that there really is an art to well-delivered camp, and is definitely a shining star in a world of sleaze. When you see Babette in RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, appearing out of drag as the Tromaville High School principal, you’ll totally get what I mean. The smarminess is palpable. It’s just a genius performance, and one that I think will endure when we think of Troma for years to come. Beyond that, Babette has been in movies directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, as well the previously mentioned Richard Griffin. She’s totally a presence on the scene right now, and I really think someone ought to be making a big deal about her, because she totally is a big deal. So, I’m paying it forward and fanning that flame…more Babette in 2014!
Wanna buy my book, OUT IN THE DARK: INTERVIEWS WITH GAY HORROR FILMMAKERS, ACTORS AND AUTHORS? Just mosey on over to Amazon.